In the extraordinary career of Hayao Miyazaki, there are films that achieve less than what they set out to do, but none that fail to capture visions of wonder. Howl’s Moving Castle, like the titular castle itself, is an assemblage of slapped-together parts that ultimately lacks cohesiveness, but that remains fascinating in its individual parts and rewards attentive exploration.
Ostensibly adapting the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Miyazaki starts from the same basic premise—the story of Sophie, a girl trying to break free of a spell, and the enigmatic young wizard Howl—but takes it in directions essentially his own. In many ways the film is a classic Miyazakian work. Its teeming, colorful cityscapes and rugged spectacles of countryside are rendered in Studio Ghibli’s trademark painterly animation. It’s a sweeping feat of worldbuilding, grandly combining magic and technology; the opening sequence, in particular, indicates a world where the mundane and magical live side by side, and an ordinary day can become extraordinary without the least warning.
Unfortunately for Sophie (Emily Mortimer/Jean Simmons in Disney’s English dub), her world’s magical dimension soon invades her life in the more sinister form of the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall!), which in turn drives her out into the mysterious world she’s been watching from the windows. There she encounters not only Howl (Christian Bale counterbalancing the character’s effeminate appearance), but his apprentice Markl (Josh Hutcherson, a much younger version of the book’s Michael), and Calcifer, the fire demon—“demon” here meaning simply a magical being—who powers the moving castle (Billy Crystal adding characteristic sass to good effect). Among many startling discoveries, Sophie finds that she’s not the only one laboring under a curse.
Up to now the plot has mostly adhered to Jones’s novel. At this point Miyazaki sets out to tell a story of his own, which is fine; a loose adaptation of an earlier work may be excellent in its own right. In this case, though, the new elements have little connection with those brought in from the original.
Taking up another favorite Miyazaki theme, the second half of Howl’s Moving Castle is predominantly a passionate lament of the ravages of war; its camera dwells grimly on burning cities and bomb-laden airships. All the kingdom’s witches and wizards are required by royal command to serve in battle, a summons Howl wants nothing to do with, though it’s not entirely clear at first how much of this is conscientious objection and how much the simple desire to run away. Some wizards who have obeyed the summons have irreversibly transformed themselves into monsters in order to fight, perhaps a bit of a heavyhanded image but certainly a memorable one.
This, too, could easily have been a great story in itself. Here, however, given the characters’ own needs and quests that have already been established, the more the drama of the war mounts, the more the question is muddled: What is this story about? Is it, as it seems in the first act, about the heroine’s personal quest to save herself and her new friends from the knot of spells in which they’re entangled? About the heroes escaping a call to participate in an unjust war? About somehow putting a halt to the destruction of that war, á la Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind? Any of these would be fine, if only the film could make up its mind.
The upshot is a film in which, while one gorgeously imagined scene follows another, there’s less and less sense that the overall work is going anywhere. Plot points that feel as though they should be coming together to answer the story’s manifold riddles—why the Witch comes after Sophie in the first place; why the Witch pursues Howl; the rumors of Howl devouring girls’ hearts; where Howl goes through the castle’s secret exit; the nature of Howl and Calcifer’s predicament, how they got into it, and why Sophie is uniquely qualified to save them from it—are not only left unexplained but apparently forgotten, as finally we’re invited to rejoice in the solving of all our problems without any discernible idea of how we got there.
This is not, of course, to say that a story can’t have more than one level of plot and conflict. It is to say that the complexity of a story ought not to diminish its sense of wholeness or consistency. For all the brilliance that went into the envisioning of Howl’s Moving Castle, it’s a film trying to tell too many stories at once, and ultimately unable to give sufficient attention to any of them. To borrow Thomas Howard’s words about another movie, “by the end of the film not only have the questions raised in the action not been settled (you can have a very good drama that doesn’t settle the questions); they have been lost track of” (Chance or the Dance?).
Admittedly several of Miyazaki’s works have done very well without a conventionally clear plotline or addressing some of the questions that have been raised (My Neighbor Totoro; Kiki’s Delivery Service; Porco Rosso); but in those cases, the absence of any driving objective or serious central conflict suggests a “slice of life” rather than a typical adventure story. Those films know what they’re about, in a way that Howl’s Moving Castle seems not to.
The characters, too, suffer from a lack of cohesion, particularly Howl. Miyazaki’s knack for admirable protagonists is one of the most appealing traits of his work, but here it clashes with Jones’s morally compromised characters. The resulting Howl displays vanity, cowardice, and hysterics alternating with bursts of courage and graciousness, giving the impression of an inconsistent, unreliable character and making Sophie’s devotion to him feel less than relatable.
Yet, for all its weaknesses, my family and I have kept coming back to this movie for fifteen years or so. Even when his narrative disintegrates, Miyazaki’s visions still have so much to offer: the bustle and exquisite architecture of the various cities; the sprawling green hills, snowcapped mountains, and shimmering lakes through which the castle wanders; the bucolic idyll of Howl’s private retreat; and especially the castle itself, an intricate conglomeration of machinery, pieces of houses, pipes, and more, its single door opening to different locations by yet another extraordinary magical conceit. Forgetting Sophie and Howl’s story, I could explore their world for ages. Appreciative viewers may be able to see how it inspired Pete Docter’s Up.
If we had come to Howl’s Moving Castle without any prior exposure to Miyazaki’s work, we might have been simply put off by its weirdness. Some fans, on the other hand, love it for its scope and aren’t bothered by its lack of focus. I have sympathy for both viewpoints.